Mental Health
Strategies To Deal With Frustrating Family Members During The Holidays

Strategies To Deal With Frustrating Family Members During The Holidays

8 min read


Caitlin Harper

Often, when confronted with a difficult person, the solution seems easy: avoid at all costs. But when the person is family, it’s not that easy. Truly toxic people are one thing, but what if your family is simply frustrating?

Even if you’re crushing it in your adult life (and it’s okay if you’re not!), family members often know exactly what to say or do to drive us bonkers, from whipping out cringy childhood nicknames to bringing up youthful mistakes to commenting on our life choices.

Even if your family members are some of your favorite people in the world, that doesn’t mean they can’t get under your skin. Sometimes, the people closest to us are the best at really pushing our buttons.

Here are a few strategies you can use to deal with frustrating family members during the holidays (or any time of year).

If you know you get angry or frustrated, the first thing you can do is be aware of that

If you find yourself dreading a conversation with your grandma, anxious that your siblings will bring up a certain topic, embarrassed by how your parents act, or otherwise irked at the very thought of your family, don’t push those thoughts and feelings away—welcome them with open arms.

That self-awareness of the fact that you will get frustrated by them is actually a huge plus, because it means that you’ll be able to take care of yourself ahead of time and possibly avoid or slow down the escalation of your typical anger and frustration.

Here are a few ways to practice preventative self-care, so you can waltz into any family gathering cool, calm, and collected:

  • Find out what really recharges and rejuvenates you: You don’t have to book an entire week at a spa to prep for holiday dinner, but a couple of days or even hours before you know you’re heading into a frustrating family situation, take care of yourself in ways that truly fulfill you. Bring a good book on your train ride instead of spending the time dreading the gathering, take a few things from your apartment to put in the guest bedroom at your parents’ house to make it feel more like home, or simply text your favorite cousin ahead of time and plan a few activities to keep you away from less-favorite family members.
  • Eliminate or reduce things that don’t fill your cup: You can set boundaries when it comes to family (no matter how hard the pressure might be not to). Maybe you usually spend a holiday week together, but a day might be all you can really handle. Maybe you can duck out after dinner before the alcohol really starts to flow and the conversation gets heated. Maybe you don’t have to attend certain gatherings at all! Instead of simply going through the motions at an event, send a gift with a note that says, “Hope this present can replace my presence.”
  • Build self-care into your daily practice so you’re prepared when things get tough: Once you decide what you find most rejuvenating, make a contract with yourself to commit to these actions until they become second nature. Maybe you start taking a daily walk to get some fresh air and even when you’re spending time with family for a few days, you slip out after breakfast so you can keep taking that time for yourself.

By using these strategies ahead of time, instead of going from zero to one hundred percent frustrated in no time and feeling that loss of control, you might be able to slow your reaction down, really notice what’s happening, and regain a sense of control that will help you feel less frustrated—or not frustrated at all!

Another thing you can do when you start to feel frustrated is try to engage in something physical

No, we don’t mean punching your brother in the face. Something physical that will ground you in your body!

For example, MyWellbeing’s CEO, Alyssa Petersel, likes to push her pointer finger and thumb together in a sort of OK sign and focus on where the nail meets the skin. Focusing her attention on something really specific helps ground her in her physical body rather than spiraling into her thoughts.

Here are a few other things you can try:

  • Plant your feet firmly on the ground and focus on where your feet make contact with the floor. Concentrate on how the ground feels beneath your feet.
  • Tense your muscles, whether it’s by squeezing your shoulders up to your ears and then releasing or making a tight fist and focusing on what it feels like in your shoulders or arm.
  • Focus on your breath. Simply breathe in and out, focusing on the cool air going in your nose and the warm air going out, and pay attention to how it feels on your nostrils.

Concentrating on the physical can ground yourself in your body and away from your thoughts, helping you to level out your feelings instead of having them escalate when you start to feel frustrated.

But what if you’re blindsided by an irritating family member and the frustration starts to escalate before you can ground yourself?

Step away! Instead of silently stewing or blowing up at them in the moment, leave the room (or chat or call) and take some time to yourself.

Free associate in a note on your phone or a journal and get everything out of your system. That way, your thoughts and feelings won’t be bottled up inside, but you also won’t say something to the person you’re frustrated with in the moment that you might regret later.

If you think it might help, try to talk to the person you’re irritated with

Once you’re in a calm place, you could try giving your frustrating family member some feedback. Maybe they don’t realize that what they’re saying is hurting you. Maybe they are being annoying on purpose, but they don’t understand how damaging it is to your relationship.

Try giving some feedback like:

  • When you criticize my career choice, it makes me feel like my hard work has been for nothing. I’m happy with my job at the moment, and even if you don’t agree, I’d appreciate your support.
  • We both know we don’t agree on this topic and I think if we keep talking about it, we’re only going to get angry. I’d love to hear about the vacation you took this year instead and I can tell you about the trip we’re planning for next year.
  • I’ve noticed that when I’m home, we tend to revert back to bickering the way we used to when we were kids. I’ve grown a lot and I know you have too. I hope we can both pause before we say something mean to one another and consider if it really has to be said.

If a relative seems determined to pick a fight, pries too much into your private life or disagrees with everything you say, view it as a reflection of who they are, not who you are. And who knows; if they have a little time to self-reflect on their own, they might come around.

If a family member is truly toxic, it might be time to cut ties

“When it comes to deciding how much (or at all) a person can keep a toxic family member in their life, I encourage people to take honest stock of how this relationship is impacting their life,” said Meg Gitlin, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member.

“Maybe first we do a series of experiments to see how effective boundaries and diminished expectations can be. If that proves futile, it’s important, but certainly not easy to practice acceptance—you may not be able to have a close relationship with your family member. I remind my clients that there are many people who have wonderful lives and develop relationships with ‘surrogate’ parents or other close support people.”

It can be extremely difficult to cut ties in a toxic relationship. How do we know if and when the time is right? Meg said it might be time when:

  • You’ve tried everything you can imagine, like implementing strong boundaries and realistic expectations, and you can't seem to make any improvement.
  • When it markedly impacts your relationships negatively or prevents you from creating healthy relationships with your closest supports.
  • When the impact of their mental health condition or abusive behavior can't be contained using any tactics explored in therapy.

At the end of the day, you only have control over yourself

While we often want to control the words and actions of those around us, remember that it’s most powerful to have control over ourselves. We control how we act and react to events both good and bad, so when you’re dealing with difficult family members, focus on yourself.

And remember that, in many situations, people behave in a difficult way in reaction to something else. So you may think your niece flies off the handle without any reason, but she's furious because she thinks you're needling her about her appearance. If you behave differently, she will too.

If you’re struggling to cope with the stress, need to figure out better ways to keep your emotions from escalating, or just need someone to help you process your thoughts and feelings, a therapist or coach can help.

Dealing with frustrating family members is hard, but whether you practice self-awareness, ground yourself in your physical body, get your thoughts out on paper (or digitally), try talking to them, or realize that the relationship is not working and decide to walk away, you can feel confident that you’re tending to your own needs—and that’s what matters most.

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About the author

Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at

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